The Longest Table sparks dialogue at dinner party of hundreds

Three hundred and twenty Howard County residents sat down at a 320-foot-long table this week to break bread with strangers and build community.

The event, called "The Longest Table," invited residents to sit down for a catered dinner with people they did not know, to exchange stories and ideas about Howard County. It was part of the Howard County library system's Choose Civility initiative, which according to their website is meant to "enhance respect, empathy, consideration and tolerance" in the county.


"This was a Choose Civility event because our theme this year has been about building community," said Christie Lassen, director of communications and partnerships at the library system. "That's what this whole event was about."

This was the first time Howard County has held "The Longest Table." Similar events have taken place in other cities around the country, including Tallahassee, Fla., and Oak Park, Ill.

The Longest Table, a community dinner meant to foster dialogue and friendship between up to 350 guests, is coming to Howard County.

Stacie Hunt, head of Leadership Howard County, one of the partners on the project, said they reached out to other organizations to learn best practices.

One important strategy, Hunt said, was to reach out to a "diverse collection of people." They contacted faith-based communities and used the library's "inclusive communication relationship with the community" as a launching pad, she said.

Guests were purposefully separated from those they arrived with and sent to ends of the table so far apart they would have to squint to see each other. Some guests began the evening quiet and cautious; they made small talk about the beautiful weather, nibbling on whole grain bread and salad, politely passing the main course — alfredo-style pasta with dill and capers, served family-style — to neighbors whose names they did not know. Other guests, seemingly by coincidence, found themselves sitting near longtime friends.

"Sometimes it's kind of hard in Howard County to not know someone," Lassen said. "We're a very connected community."

A paper table runner with questions like "How would you describe your neighborhood?" and "What brought you to the Longest Table?" stretched before the guests and reached all the way across one of Howard Community College's parking lots. The table broke off into small groups, led by one of about 35 volunteer "hosts," or conversation facilitators, who used the questions on the table to spark dialogue.

Facilitator Jennifer Ransaw Smith said that having conversations from questions written on the table was a way to "disarm" people and make them feel more comfortable talking about their experiences.

Howard County has a history of strong civic engagement and generally good governance, with voters using the ballot box to bring about change. Voters will take note of candidates in county races who are loathe to choose civility. Let the campaigns begin, with spirited debate and none of the bile that has been spewed nationally.

"It wasn't like as a facilitator I was coming in with some kind of agenda," she said. "It was just, 'What's your experience like here?' as, for instance, a 60-year-old female married Caucasian? Or as a widower?"

Lassen said that those who registered for the event were largely female, and that though there was a "nice representation" of people ages 20-39, the majority of guests were in their 40s to 70s. Even given those trends, the random seating assignments meant people often shared experiences from vastly different perspectives.

One woman described the difficulty of finding places to go in the county that her husband, who is disabled, can access. Ransaw Smith, who is African-American, talked about white flight toward western Howard County and explained the challenges facing her three children in a school system with few black male teachers as role models.

Robin Steele, a Leadership Howard County graduate who was involved in "The Longest Table," said before the event that she hoped it would spark a dialogue about race and diversity.

"We're still segregated, and even in my community," Steele said. "My community is diverse when it comes to race, but when you think about every day, the people you work with, a diverse workforce, the community … there's a lot of things that we can do in terms of treating people with kindness."

Even within the small groups, people hailed from all over the county. Anita Broccolino said she recently moved to an area near Mt. Hebron High. Heidi Mobley said she lives in an Ellicott City condominium that she chose when she was "looking for a place where I'd be comfortable coming home at 3 o'clock in the morning."


Brenda von Rautenkranz said she and her husband, Walter, live in an area so remote that they have never had food delivered to their house.

"We have a homeowners association, and I'm the only member," she joked.

Some, like Mobley, said they had lived in Howard County nearly their entire lives. Others were from elsewhere. Pamela Isabel said she moved to Maryland from Florida after her Realtor recommended Howard County.

"Baltimore is provincial," she said the Realtor told her. "Move to Howard County; everyone here is from somewhere else."

"OMG to AARP," is the sixth annual Choose Civility Symposium set for 7 p.m. Wednesday Oct. 9 at the Miller branch library in Ellicott City. The public is invited and admission is free.

Letitia George, who arrived at "The Longest Table" with her 8-year-old granddaughter, Renne, said she moved to Columbia from Baltimore a year and a half ago. George, who said she recently had been laid off from Lockheed Martin, said she found out about the event from a flier in the library, and that for her it was a way to "find out more stuff about Columbia and meet new people."

Though many people were from different backgrounds, one question seemed to elicit widespread agreement: "What's the biggest challenge facing our community?"

"Affordable housing," von Rautenkranz said immediately. "Ding ding ding!" someone yelled. "The cost of living in general," someone else said, as everyone in earshot murmured in agreement.

Other issues people were concerned about included the quality of education and views being blocked by fast development in more rural areas of Howard County.

For some groups, meeting with new people appeared to spark a policy brainstorming session. Ransaw Smith, for instance, suggested Howard County build an "incubator" space for entrepreneurs. She said one of the most important things she took from the evening was just getting to hear different perspectives.

"Even the people who already knew each other learned new things about each other," Broccolino said.

"It's a great way to connect, and really hear peoples' dreams," van Rautenkrauz agreed.

The library's Lassen said that they received good feedback from the event and they hope to make it annual. She said one guest wrote an email thanking the organizers, saying: "Events like these … give me faith that our community isn't as fractured as I sometimes perceive it to be."

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